A new study identifies patterns of what happens when local fisheries connect to global markets. The patterns help explain why fish stocks stay healthy or decline, and why conflicts and income gaps arise between traders and fishers. Photo: J. Lokrantz/Azote

Seafood trade

Syndromes of change

How international seafood trade impacts small-scale fisheries

Story highlights

  • Study explains how small-scale fishers interact with parties on a global scale and how that affects them
  • Reasearch based on outcomes across 18 cases around the world
  • Results highlight areas of policy that
    need further dialogue

What happens when small-scale fishers are integrated into global markets?

Overall this integration has both positive and negative effects but much of the work trying to demonstrate the effects lack consensus and is often polarized between positive and negative outcomes. 

What is needed is research that can shed light on the nuances between the two extremes and paint a more complete picture of what is likely to happen when a fishing community starts engaging in international trade.

Teasing out patterns
In a new study published in Global Environmental Change, a joint team from the centre and the Global Economic and the Biosphere Programme at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences have attempted to tackle this need.

The team, consisting of Beatrice Crona, Tim Daw and Eny Buchary together with Tracy van Holt did a systematic assessment based on works of the renowned climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

Schellnhuber originally developed ‘global environmental change syndromes’ to overcome sectorial, single-faceted approaches. He argues that bundles of interacting processes can be grouped into ‘syndromes of change’.

Beatrice Crona and her team aims to tease out patterns among the many social and ecological outcomes arising from small-scale fisheries engaging in international seafood trade. It also tries to identify the factors contributing to the observed outcomes.

"The intention is to paint a fuller picture of how small-scale fishers interact with parties on a global scale and how that affects them"

Beatrice Crona, lead author

The study goes beyond the sector-based assessment and disciplinary focus of international seafood trade often found in the literature.

This new study includes multiple explanatory factors ranging from socioeconomic conditions, to institutions and ecological traits of target species.

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18 cases, three syndromes
The study examined a variety of outcomes across 18 cases from around the world. The cases were then categorized based on how the outcome variables clustered together. These clusters are referred to as syndromes because they can be thought of as symptoms of what happens when local fisheries connect to global markets.

The first syndrome was associated with improved management and generally healthy fish stocks. The principal factor behind this was the presence of strong and well-enforced institutions.

The second syndrome was characterized by declining resources and conflicts between fisheries actors. This was primarily linked to weak institutions for managing resources, a scenario often observed in the agricultural sector when small-scale producers get trapped in unsustainable and inefficient production when they are exposed to export markets without long-term institutional support.

The third syndrome was also characterized by declining stocks but also showed evidence of wealthy elites of fish traders capturing wealth at the expense of increasingly poorer fishers. These cases often included niche market products such as sea cucumbers, and live reef fish with vulnerable life-history traits. This seem to have been caused by a combination of strong demand from niche markets in China and a desire among trade actors to secure access to high-value resources.

From local to global and back again
When examining the syndromes, the authors saw that the factors important for explaining them operate at very different scales, from the very local (such as patron-client relations and ecological traits of species) to the international level (foreign demand for seafood products).

The authors argue that this poses new governance challenges when it comes to efforts to achieve sustainable social and environmental trajectories.

It also highlights the need to develop approaches that account for these multi-scale drivers. Highly decentralized governance such as community management is, on its own, unlikely to be sufficient and needs to be supported by institutions on national levels.

The authors maintain that understanding the complex social, economic and environmental dynamics is crucial for a more sustainable seafood trade.

"This study sheds light on the many trade-offs between global sourcing of fish and local sustainability, food and job security. It helps identify a range of plausible outcomes of interactional seafood trade in small-scale fisheries which can better highlight areas of policy that need further dialogue."

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Published: 2015-12-18



Crona, B. I., Van Holt, T., Petersson, M., Daw, T. M., & Buchary, E. (2015). Using social–ecological syndromes to understand impacts of international seafood trade on small-scale fisheries. Global Environmental Change, 35, 162-175.

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Beatrice Crona's work focuses on resource governance issues with particular focus on marine related topics. Broadly, her research can be divided into three strands: The role of social networks in natural resource governance; Multi-level governance, knowledge transfer and the role of boundary-bridging organizations for adaptive governance; and the role of trade in marine resource governance outcomes: understanding cross-scale signals, straps and trajectories.


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